Wasted opportunity: Can restaurants really be zero-waste rated?

By Katy Salter

- Last updated on GMT

(Photo: Chefs Dan Barber, Adam Kaye, Jonny Bone, and Ian Scaramuzza discussing ideas)
(Photo: Chefs Dan Barber, Adam Kaye, Jonny Bone, and Ian Scaramuzza discussing ideas)

Related tags: Food waste, Food

The industry is under pressure to cut food waste and be more sustainable. But is it really possible for restaurants to be zero-waste rated?

Forget tacos or Indian small plates. Waste is currently the hottest ticket in London. High above Oxford Street, US chef Dan Barber, of Blue Hill in New York, is cooking a gourmet menu of food waste for his WastED pop-up on Selfridges’ rooftop (until 2 April).

WastED London uses by-products from retailers, producers and suppliers otherwise destined for the bin. Cabbage cores, waste-fed pigs and cover-crop sprouts are all getting the Blue Hill-treatment.

“Being presented with a whole new palette of ingredients — that’s catnip for a chef,” says Barber, who’ll be sharing the stoves with guest chefs including Pierre Koffman, Jason Atherton and Tom Kerridge.

They’re not the only chefs turning their attention to food waste. Skye Gyngell’s ‘Scratch’ menu at Spring uses ‘waste’ such as beetroot tops and potato skins for soup, and day-old bread for bread pudding. After a good reception, the restaurant is keeping the Scratch menu on indefinitely.

Then, of course, there’s the new breed of ‘zero waste’ restaurants, like SILO Brighton and Tiny Leaf in London.

Add to the mix ethical restaurants like Poco (in London and Bristol) and Real Junk Food Project, the growing network of not-for-profit food waste cafés in cities including Manchester and Leeds, and it can appear that everyone is talking about tackling food waste. But how far does the industry still have to go, and what can it learn from the zero-waste pioneers?

An industry under pressure

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The restaurant industry is certainly under pressure to tackle waste. UK restaurants produce 915,400 tonnes of waste per year, including 199,100 tonnes of food waste, according to WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme). As well as the environmental cost, there’s a pressing financial one, too: food waste costs UK restaurants £682m a year.

FoodSave, a project run by the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) in London from 2013 to 2015, helped participating restaurants save around £6,000 per year by reducing waste, using surplus food and sending more waste to compost. Some, like small neighbourhood restaurant group Foxlow, saved much more – in Foxlow’s case, the equivalent of £27,200 per year.

“The most common foods wasted were potatoes, bread and salad,” says the SRA’s Tom Tanner on FoodSave’s findings. Waste occurred at all stages of the process: “It’s a mixture of spoilage, prep and consumer plates.”

While it makes sense to reduce waste, many businesses are unclear where to start. Then there’s the question whether it is even possible to be truly waste-free.

The new breed of ‘zero-waste’ restaurants have set the bar high, although they don’t define ‘zero waste’ in the same way. Some, like Tiny Leaf and The Real Junk Food Project in Manchester, use surplus that would otherwise have gone to landfill.

“We work with organic producers and suppliers. We collect surplus produce from them and transform it into restaurant-quality dishes,” says Alice Gilsenan, co-founder of Tiny Leaf. The Real Junk Food Project Manchester, which has run pop-up restaurants and is crowdfunding to open Manchester’s first waste food pay-as-you-feel restaurant in May, works in a similar way, but on a not-for-profit basis.

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(Photo: The Junk Food Project)

“We work with cafés and producers – anyone who’s got food going to waste that is still edible and we can use safely,” says Corin Bell, director of The Real Junk Food Project Manchester. “We work to the same food safety standards as any other food business.”

The Manchester café also sources food nationally through The Real Junk Food Project, the charitable foundation of which it is part. It takes surplus ingredients from wholesalers and supermarkets including Ocado, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s. The Real Junk Food Project Manchester relies on its chefs’ creativity. “It’s the biggest game of Ready, Steady, Cook you can imagine,” says Bell.

The café tends to serve small plates or family-style dishes because they can’t plan ahead for quantities. “When it’s gone, it’s gone,” she adds. 

“The way I define zero waste at Silo Brighton is that we don’t have a bin,” says Silo founder and chef Douglas McMaster. “It’s about way more than food waste. It’s thinking about cleaning materials, napkins, menus.” McMaster makes almost everything from scratch to avoid both food and packaging waste. “We butcher whole animals, churn butter, roll oats, we ferment foods. We go to extremes,” he says.

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(Photo: Silo Brighton)

Silo even has its own on-site, state-of-the-art composter, and McMaster has had “countless” visits from people in the industry to look at what Silo is doing. “People always come sceptical that we’re authentic, so it’s fascinating when they walk through our kitchens and see us doing everything from scratch,” he says. 

Whether it’s truly possible to be ‘zero-waste’ rated is a matter for debate. “It’s absolutely possible to get to zero-food waste in terms of ‘is anything going to landfill’? Nothing needs to go to landfill,” says Tanner. But even the most ambitious zero-wasters admit that being 100% waste-free on every front is impossible. “There can’t be such a thing as zero waste in an industrial society, with legislation,” says McMaster. “There are a lot of man-made items that don’t biodegrade. My ovens are eventually going to break, for example.”

“I don’t think ‘zero waste’ exists in all honesty, but I have called Poco a zero-waste restaurant at one point because we have recycled and composted all of our waste,” adds Poco founder Tom Hunt. “It’s a good term because it’s a headline grabber and inspires other people to change.”

Learning from the pioneers

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So, what can the rest of the industry learn from the zero-waste pioneers? Do restaurants have to start making everything from scratch? Not necessarily. There are some easy ways to start tackling waste that don’t involve churning your own butter.

“The first baby step to take is to separate your food waste. Get a separate bin and measure what’s going into it,” says Tanner. Don’t forget packaging and other recyclables, too. “We separate into four different bins: black for general waste, food bins, a glass bin and a dry mixed recycling bin for cardboard and tins,” says Steve Packer, head of supply chain at Pizza Hut, which is working with its waste provider to become zero to landfill by 2018.

Once you know the kinds of foods you’re wasting, the next step is composting. Some councils collect food waste for composting (Poco takes advantage of this at its Hackney site), some don’t, which means paying a waste services company to take it away. This is one area where chains have an advantage because they can negotiate better costs with providers.

One way for independents to lower the costs is to follow Hunt’s example in Bristol, where Poco has formed a co-operative with other restaurants to get their waste collected by a single provider. If you have a large site, you could even do as Silo has done and invest in your own composter. 

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Independents and small groups can start practising what Hunt calls ‘root to fruit’ cooking. Just like nose-to-tail butchery this means using all parts of a fruit or vegetable – the stalks, leaves, peelings. This often involves taking a new approach to menu design. “Rather than thinking about one dish, we consider every element of the ingredient,” says Tiny Leaf ’s Gilsenan. “If we make lemon cheesecake and have lots of rinds, we make limoncello.”

Talking to suppliers can reduce waste further up the supply chain and being creative with ingredients also helps; wonky veg can be used for soups and imperfect-sized chicken breasts for curries. Specials are also effective ways of tackling a glut of certain ingredients. For the big chains, forward planning can anticipate gluts and shortages during the year.

“We’re getting better at asking our suppliers to come to us with opportunities,” says Packer. “If our supplier says there’s five crops over the year that might have gluts or a risk to supply, we could get alternatives pre-approved. So, at certain times, we might not get iceberg lettuce on the salad bar, but we’d have Apollo instead.”

Opportunities for independents

There’s no doubt that many food-waste reduction measures are easier for independents. “If you’re Tiny Leaf, you can change the menu at the drop of a hat. For us, that requires menu reprints, IT changes, website change and operational communications,” adds Packer. “But what the rest of the industry can learn from the zero-waste pioneers is not to let the big system processes slow you down.”

In other ways, the chains are in a strong position to tackle waste. “In terms of things such as reviewing portion control, chains are a bit smarter because they’ve got the tech. They tend to be good on staff awareness too,” says Tanner. Schemes like FareShare and Food Donation Connection in cities are also enabling groups like Pizza Hut, KFC and Nando’s to donate surplus food to charities.

Whatever the size of the restaurant, there’s an app or piece of tech that can help, as brands and start-ups rush to find food waste solutions. Tiny Leaf uses Olio, an app that advertises unwanted food to nearby users, who come and collect it. Unilever’s Wise Up on Waste app helps kitchens identify where and when they’re wasting food, as well as identifying cost savings. Then there’s the Too Good to Go app, where restaurants can sell leftover dishes at knock-down prices.

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(Photo: Tiny Leaf)

Wi-Fi-enabled gadgetry like smart fridges and bins connected to iPads, is an area to watch. Food waste continues to be a problem, but restaurants are starting to see it as a creative challenge too. “I’d see it less as a responsibility and more as an opportunity,” says Barber of using every part of an ingredient, be it animal or vegetable. “My hope is that we can make flavour a part of the food waste conversation – to show how by-products of the food chain can become celebrated ingredients in their own right. That’s how we can start to change the culture.”

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Being ahead of the curve on food waste could give a restaurant an added edge, something that could become increasingly important in such a competitive marketplace.

“Being zero-waste rated is another reason for people to come and eat at your restaurant,” says Gilsenan.

For jaded diners, their burgers and brunches past can start blending into one. But they’ll never forget where they were when they ate their first cabbage cores and waste-fed pigs.

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Restaurant Magazine, and was adapted for BigHospitality.co.uk by Hannah Thompson. Subscribe to Restaurant Magazine here​ from just £70 a year! 

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